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PWR 1BRB: In Another's Shoes: The Rhetoric of Empathy

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In his recent book, The Empathetic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin offers an alternative history of human civilization—one defined not by violent wars and grabs for power but by empathy. As Rifkin argues, “Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization.” This is only one example of the recent “affective turn” across fields and disciplines, with psychologists seeking to understand how empathy works, neuroscientists pinpointing the mechanisms in the brain, and political activists desiring to turn all these feelings into real-world action.

In this course, students will explore how empathy works both as a subject of their research projects and as a force that informs the rhetorical situation of conveying that research to others. How do our feelings about an argument affect our reaction? And how can communicators use empathy effectively—as well as responsibly? We will track different attempts, across fields, to define and explain sympathy and empathy, reaching back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and forward to the science of empathy and Leslie Jamison’s account of how doctors learn to “train” their empathy. These texts will suggest the range of ways that empathy and sympathy can be used across disciplines, professions, and rhetorical situations—and the potential routes students can take in their own research projects. For example, students might investigate how scientists presenting their work on global warming appeal to our empathy, or how political activists attempt to leverage sympathy into action. As students work on finding the most effective ways to craft their arguments, we will pay particular attention to the power of the anecdote, narrative, and storytelling for making connections with an audience through the written word.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages): In the first assignment, you’ll use rhetorical theory to analyze a text and consider how the speaker appeals to a particular audience, what strategies he or she uses, and to what purpose. You might analyze how protestors have used a particular message or approach to garner sympathy from the wider public, for example, or how an environmental message seeks to build empathy for the more-then-human world.

Texts in Conversation Essay

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages): In this first step toward the final research-based argument, you will engage with research on a particular topic related to our theme. You will seek out primary and secondary sources, and explore how different fields—from pop culture to psychology to law—have addressed your topic. Synthesizing your research and analyses, you will write an essay examining how different sources and perspectives are in dialogue with your research question.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages): Building on your research for the Texts in Conversation assignment, you will gather sources and examples/case studies in order to craft a thoughtful and complex argument. While you should take the course topic as a guide, you might approach it from any number of angles—from how physicians can develop a more empathetic bedside manner, to the role of empathy in education, to the construction of empathy in Sarah Koenig’s Serial.